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Demons for violin and piano (2017)

March 11, 2018: Benjamin Beilman, Violin; Orion Weiss, piano

Dynamic, engaging, and committed to social issues, pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard, where he studied with Randall Thompson and Walter Piston, and his master’s degree at Princeton, where his teachers included Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. Following additional studies with Luigi Dallapiccola on a Fulbright scholarship in Florence, Rzewski began making a name for himself as a performer and teacher of new music in Europe. In 1966 in Rome he cofounded Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), where he explored collaborative improvisation.

Rzewski returned to New York in 1971 but later took a post at the Royal Conservatory in Liège and continued to work with MEV in Rome. He has taught periodically at other renowned institutions, in particular the universities of Cincinnati, SUNY–Buffalo, California–San Diego as well as Yale, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and the Berlin Hochschule der Künste.

As both composer and performer, Rzewski has long focused on issues that dominate the headlines. Coming Together (1972), for example, sets a letter by Attica State Prison inmate Sam Melville who was later killed in the Attica riots, and Rzewski’s monumental piano work The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975) presents a set of variations on Sergio Ortega’s song for the mass mobilization of working-class people. More recently, Songs of Insurrection for piano (2016) treats melodies by imprisoned soldiers at a Nazi concentration camp, Korean peasants of the Donghak Rebellion, and Irish nationalists during the “Easter Rising,” among many others. To Rzewski’s credit, his works are incredibly moving and show a characteristic drive whether he employs atonal or tonal techniques, incorporates improvisation or not, or treats his own or popular melodies.

Rzewski composed Demons in the spring and summer of 2017 for violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Orion Weiss on a commission from Music Accord. Dedicated to author and political activist Angela Davis, the work receives its premiere on March 3, 2018, in Baltimore at the Carice Smith Performing Arts Center and continues its round of premiere performances in Boston at the Longy School of Music, here on the Parlance Chamber Concerts, and in Heidelberg, Germany.

The composer writes: “In Dostoyevsky’s 1871 novel of the same name, the character Kirillov kills himself in order ‘to become God.” Inspired by the Russian Nihilist movement of the 1860s and specifically by the charismatic figure Nechayev, Dostoyevsky’s book is a study of the self-destructive forces present in the Russian society of his time. It foreshadows Lenin and the Revolution of 1917, as well as the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud, and had a deep influence on writers like Mann, whose Doctor Faustus is a similar study of modern Germany.

“While it is futile to try to express musical ideas in words, it is possible to say that my piece is a meditation on similar trends in the world of today.

“In early November 2016, I had the honor to assist at a spectacular performance of my composition Coming Together of 1972 at the San Francisco Conservatory, with Angela Davis as the speaking soloist, a few days before the presidential elections. There was a public discussion that followed. Davis seemed to know the results already. She said that if the Left had done its job, the present situation would not have arisen.

“These and similar ideas were all going through my head as I was writing Demons a few months later. I am not religious, and don’t know much about devils and such, but as an artist I cannot help feeling sensitive to whatever it is that awakens these ideas in humans, causing them to go crazy. I am not sure that scientists or doctors understand these things any better than writers or musicians. Perhaps, on the contrary, although we cannot explain them in rational terms, we can nevertheless throw some light on them, in our own way.

“My piece is in four movements, and so is a kind of sonata. . . . There are periodic references to two songs throughout the piece: “Iroes,” made popular in the 1990s by the singer Maria Dimitriadis, and a song that became known during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (notably as performed by Barbara Dane), “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle,” which also provided the title for the recent book of Angela Davis.

“Thanks to a new generation of classical musicians like Benjamin Beilman, there is a revival of interest among younger players in new music that in some way continues the classical tradition. One can only hope that this trend will continue. Although Marx’s analysis of capitalism as a ruthless system following its relentless course independently of human will continues to be valid, there are nonetheless reasons to think that alternatives are possible. As Mark Twain put it, prophecy is really hard, especially when it’s about the future.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

*Commissioned by Music Accord for Benjamin Beilman. Comprised of top classical music presenting organizations throughout the United States, Music Accord is a consortium that commissions news works in the chamber music, instrumental recital, and song genres. The consortium’s goal is to create a significant number of new works and to ensure presentation of these works in venues throughout this country and, if the occasion arises, internationally. For more information, please go to

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